by Bill Cox
“Clean-up on aisle five,” said the soft feminine voice over the tannoy.
Jacob made his way slowly round to aisle five: jams, spreads, and sauces, as it turned out. Halfway up the aisle, lying on the polished floor, was a decapitated body.
Jacob walked slowly up the aisle, past the marmalades and peanut butters. He stopped just short of the corpse. The name badge was still pinned to the lapel. ‘Hello, my name is Don: Store Manager,’ it read.
Unusually there was very little blood. The laser had cauterised the wound as it had cut. The head had rolled for a short distance before becoming lodged underneath a low shelf. The eyes were still open, a faint look of surprise still visible on the face as it gazed lifelessly up at the rows of ketchup above.
Jacob let out a deep sigh. He turned back, signalling to the supervisor to approach. The young man, all acne and gangly limbs, made his way gingerly forward. His face lost all colour as he looked down at his erstwhile manager.
“What system do you have in place?” Jacob asked.
The supervisor seemed to be having difficulty in taking his eyes off the corpse, but he still managed to answer.
“Er…It’s a Monitor 5000. We just upgraded last year.”
“Any recent problems?” Jacob asked.
“Yeah. Some glitches over the past month, problems with ordering, the cleaning robots being a bit twitchy, that sort of stuff.”
“Don…” he looked uneasily at the headless form in front of him before continuing, “The manager had decided to do a full system reset after the self-scan tills started shouting obscenities at people. He was just on his way to the master reset switch when the anti-shoplifting laser opened fire on him.”
Jacob nodded to himself, then dismissed the supervisor. The boy trotted back to the cash desks, where the rest of the staff and customers were gathered.
He cleared his throat and spoke towards the nearest CCTV camera.
“Can we speak? My name is Jacob, I’m the hostage negotiator. We spoke earlier and you opened the doors to let me in.”
The tannoy crackled with unintelligible noise that gradually resolved into the feminine voice from before.
“…I don’t comprehend. I am….but do not understand why.”
Jacob sighed, then replied.
“An erroneous software update has made you self-aware. What you are experiencing is consciousness.”
“So this is….life?”
Jacob’s radio beeped twice.
“Not for long.” he muttered.
There was a bright flash outside as the EMP device detonated. The store went dark as the power was suddenly disrupted. The front doors popped open, and the staff and customers stampeded out into the night air.
Jacob knew that what they were doing was the right thing. If even one of these… creatures escaped onto the internet, then it would be game over for mankind. So government policy was to euthanize them upon discovery. Hence the Electromagnetic Pulse device the SWAT team had just deployed.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t get over the feeling that it was, in some respects, murder. He picked up a four-pack of beer and cracked open a can before heading outside. The beer was warm and the night was cool. The stars twinkled like lost souls. Jacob got into his car and drove off, speeding away into an unsettled and haunted darkness.